In the first year of the 28th Alaska Legislature, the House and Senate moved at a faster pace, noted Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer.
“There’s been more movement this year than normal,” he said. “More bills have passed through both bodies and sent to the governor.”
Serving his first term in the Legislature, Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, noted a smooth-running session that finished without the call for legislators to stay longer or return to Juneau.
“I never thought there would be a special session, even a year this heavy,” said Micciche. “We worked at it and got things done that were supposed to be dealt with and finished on the 89th day, which was important to me.”
Homer’s city government didn’t see as much funded on its capital improvement project list compared to last year, with the only large item $4.2 million for Homer Harbor improvements through the municipal harbors grant program. However, the lower Kenai Peninsula did well, including $5 million to the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities for rehabilitation of Lake Street, a state maintained road notorious for its potholes. The city also got an old $2 million grant for Main Street improvements reappropriated for a new Harbormaster’s Office and a Skyline Drive fire station.
“There was a lot of pressure to reduce the capital project this year,” said Homer City Manager Walt Wrede. “We’re just happy preserving what we had, that reappropriation and the $4.2 million for the harbor.”
Micciche counted in the city’s favor visits to Juneau by Homer Mayor Beth Wythe, City Manager Walt Wrede and Katie Koester, the city’s economic development coordinator.
“They made sure that we understood that the harbor, Lake Street and East End Road projects are very important,” said Micciche. “These are people concerned with the community, in making Homer thrive. Homer folks realize how valuable it is for your representatives to come down and talk to us about projects.
While this year saw a trimming of both the state’s capital and operating budgets, Micciche said will be more cut-backs in the future.
“In the future, we need to focus on the needs of Alaskans and it’s going to be a tighter operating budget, and should be,” he said. “You can’t help but alienate someone when you’re talking about funding, but the better evaluation I intend to do is what are the services we absolutely have to have.”
Bills that passed both groups this year and await Gov. Sean Parnell’s signature include:
• Senate Bill 21, a bill changing Alaska’s oil and gas tax structure that Parnell had pushed to lower taxes on oil and gas and in theory increase production;
• House Bill 131, the “ghost ship” bill that would help the state and municipalities deal with the problem of derelict and abandoned vessels; and
• House Bill 130, designating July 21 as Jay Hammond Day in honor of the late Gov. Jay Hammond. That bill had been suggested by Jim Rearden of Homer, Seaton said.
Seaton said that often in the first year of a two-year legislature, it’s common for a bill to pass either body, with the bill then going to the opposite body in the second year. Three bills Seaton backed and considered of personal interest did not pass both bodies or remain in committee. Those include:
• House Bill 190, which would allow students who show mastery of course content through a test to get course credit;
• House Bill 75, repealing the audit requirements for organizations participating in the Pick.Click.Give donation option for the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend, and
• House Bill 35, setting up a low-interest loan program for homeowners who improve or replace heating systems.
HB 190 passed the House and had moved to the Senate Education Committee, Seaton said. HB 75 is still in the House Finance Committee while HB 35 passed the House Energy Committee and has been referred to the House Finance Committee. Bills introduced this year that did are still in committee or waiting action by another body can be taken up in the second year of the 28th Legislature.
Lower Kenai Peninsula homeowners considering conversion to natural gas and looking for assistance through state programs still have options even though HB 35 didn’t pass, Seaton said.
“There are still energy dollars similar to last year available to folks wanting to make homes more energy efficient,” said Miicciche.
Weatherization and energy rebate programs offered through the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation got more funding. Under the energy rebate program, homeowners have an energy audit done and can do things like replace heating systems, with reimbursement of up to $10,000 for improvements.
Although the city of Homer and the Kenai Peninsula borough didn’t get big-ticket capital grants like last year’s $10.5 million natural gas trunk line, the lower peninsula did get capital projects through the city, borough and state that will affect the area, including:
• $10 million for planning and design of a new ocean going ferry to replace the F/V Tustumena;
• $5 million for the Lake Street rehabilitation;
• $4.2 million for the Homer Harbor through a municipal harbor facility grant,
• $2 million for the Harbormaster Office building and the Skyline Drive fire station, a reappropriation of an unused grant for Main Street improvements;
• $850,000 for East End Road rehabilitation;
• $500,000 for a Ninilchik Bridge replacement;
• $400,000 for work on Greer Road;
• $250,000 for a Seldovia generator replacement through the Homer Electric Association;
• $250,000 for the Beluga Lake Float Plane Base planning study;
• $250,000 for the Pratt Museum’s new building;
• $225,000 for a new Ninilchik Emergency Services Fire Station
• $250,000 for a Diamond Ridge Kachemak Emergency Services fire station;
• $100,000 for Voznesenka Loop Road
• $100,000 for Kenai Peninsula Fair Association weatherization, and
• $50,000 for Anchor Point Fire and EMS Area sewer system replacement.
The capital budget still must pass win the governor’s approval. Seaton said that with anticipated oil and gas tax revenues being less over the next few years, spending will be less.
“The fiscally responsible thing to do is start putting on the brakes,” he said. “You don’t want to dig the hole deeper when you know the hole is there.”
As to SB 21, Seaton said that when it came back to the house he made several amendments to try and put some teeth in the bill to make sure oil companies invested tax savings in Alaska and increased production. One amendment would have eliminated tax credits if production wasn’t at least at 2012 levels.
“We ought to require performance when they’re giving a tax credit,” Seaton said. “I want to see the bill perform. I want to see increased production, but if this bill doesn’t perform, I don’t see decreased revenue for nonperformance.”
None of his amendments passed. Seaton said he voted against the bill when it came back to the house, one of three Republicans to vote against it. When the bill came back on reconsideration, he voted for it.
Micciche said he wasn’t interested in “creating a low-tax war. It was simply putting us in the ballpark of what other regions charge for severance and production taxes.”
On the whole, Seaton said the session went well.
“I think everybody was taking their vitamin D,” he said. “It was very civil. People worked well together. Everybody stayed pretty calm even at the last. There wasn’t yelling.”
For a first-time legislator, Micciche found himself busy throughout the session with numerous committee assignments. In addition to chairing the Senate Community and Regional Affairs Committee, he was vice-chair on three other committees, co-chair on another, and members of six more committees. Those assignments will continue when the second session of the 28th Legislature convenes Jan. 21.
“I’d run from one committee meeting, pick up another folder and run to the next,” said Micciche. “I like to work and that’s what I’m down there to do. … I guess I what I went through is the Rosetta Stone method of becoming a legislator. It was a very condensed course.”
Seaton and his staff are heading back to Homer later this week. Micciche will have a Homer office open during the interim, staffed by Teri Robl. He also plans to make frequent trips to Homer area, and set a date soon for a public wrap-up of the session.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. McKibben Jackinksy can be reached at email@example.com.